As a noun, the word “taboo” is defined as “a social or religious custom prohibiting the practice, discussion, or association of a particular person, place, or thing.” As an adjective, the definition is simplified to “prohibited or restricted by social custom.” As a subject revolving around adoption, however, the word can be applied to many topics. We, as human beings, tend to have a propensity to split certain subjects and topics as either welcome or forbidden, and—of course—the adoption community is not without this fault. However, it is important that we continue to break down those barriers and find ways to talk about those taboos rather than allowing them to spread more untrue rumors and stereotypes.
One of the largest and most broad topics that seems to keep people hesitant is the fact that there are a lot of fears surrounding the adoption process. People often do not want to hear about how adoptive parents are stressed from the loads of paperwork, worried about how the expectant parents will perceive them, anxious about whether or not they will be a “good” parent, etc. Instead, at the meetings and celebrations and almost every other opportunity, people will bring up the more positively charged (but more surface-level) questions and comments:
–That must be so exciting!
-That is good news, when is it happening?
-Is their room ready?
-How old will the child be?
And my personal favorite, Aren’t you excited?
While there is nothing inherently wrong with these questions (it is fine to express to someone who is in the process of adoption that you wish her or him well), each uses very pressurizing language. Notice the words such as “must be exciting,” “is the room ready,” “aren’t you excited.” They all imply that the person asking is certain of the prospective adoptive parents’ feelings on the journey and leave little room for them to object. In a strange way, it reminds me of when people would say, “Oh, you’re starting college! Aren’t you excited?” In reality, I was quite intimidated by college. Everything was new and strange, and I did not deal well with change.
However, when people asked in this fashion, I felt as though I could not tell them that side of the story. They sounded so sure that I was ecstatic about this new event, so I played it off. I told them that yes, every part of me was ready to go into the unknown and be free. Then, in my head I would be thinking, Well apart from the reams of paperwork, student loans, finding new friends on campus, navigating campus, my new schedule, getting a job…
You get the idea.
The point is, this taboo revolves around the fact that we are often scared of talking about what scares us. We can combat this by using more open and honest language as well as being willing to listen to each other. For example, if you want to express happiness at the news of someone adopting, perhaps try “I am excited for you!” instead of “Aren’t you excited?” It takes some of the pressure off of the prospective adoptive parents but still allows you to let them know your thoughts. You could also go for the simple, “How are you doing?” and actively listen should they admit their fears.
Another topic people are hesitant to bring up is how much pain there can be in an adoption. Like fear, pain is something we do not like to acknowledge, especially deep and emotional pain. Yet it is still there, and we would do well to speak about it in a safe space more often. The hard truth is that birth moms have to go through the pain of placing their child with another family; adoptive parents have to brave the uncertainty of adoption; many parents go through the terrible experiences of miscarriage and custody battles and infertility and a plethora of other difficult situations that can bring emotional and physical pain.
I know it is not easy to bring up upsetting situations, and obviously if that is not something you are comfortable with, then do not feel like you have to. However, talking about it can often help to alleviate that trauma, and I think working to normalize talking about it could help as well. In a lot of areas, though, being open and talking about heavy issues like this is still very “hush-hush.” Keep your emotions on the down-low, they say. This only leads to pent-up frustrations and internalized thoughts. If you are comfortable, confide with a close family member, a partner, or a friend. A lot of times, adoption organizations will even have ways to reach out and connect with others in situations similar to your own—such as adoption support groups. Know that you are not alone. You should feel free to express the sadness and grief you have experienced.
Another taboo subject is the criticism that adoptive parents and birth parents all too frequently receive. Birth parents will be badgered with outside judgments about why they should parent the child, whether it should be a closed or open adoption, what kind of family they are placing their child into, and so much more. Adoptive parents face equal interrogations about why they could not become pregnant, the kind of adoption they choose, what race or gender their adoptive child should be, or even why they would adopt in the first place. Yet, you do not usually hear about these negative comments other than if a parent decides to tell you about them. Overall, this topic boils down to practicing empathy and respecting other people’s choices. The phrase “put yourself in another’s shoes” has been beaten down to a pulp but for good reason. You will not always know what people are going through, how they were led to a certain decision, or why they chose a particular path. Before commenting on anything, try putting yourself in their shoes. Think about what you know or do not know about them and try to imagine what they might be dealing with in that moment. Although, to be honest, you should also just respect their decision. Having to address the big “what-ifs” and “whether or nots” pertaining to one’s child and family is a very intimidating, very personal ordeal. Both sides of the adoption process (the birth parents and the adoptive parents) are under a lot of pressure as you can already see. Give them the space and respect they need to process it. If they make a choice you do not agree with, while it is okay for your opinion to be as such, keep in mind that you still need to address them with civility and compassion.
On a similar note, there is a stigma out there that because adoptive parents choose to adopt a child, they should be completely prepared to be the “perfect parent.” Let me say right now: there is no such thing as the “perfect parent.” No matter how many home studies you have to go through, no matter how many times a social worker asks for your qualifications and credentials, no matter how many trainings you go to, agencies understand that you will not be perfect. Their job is to find a good match that can provide well for the child, of course, but to say that they are searching for the “perfect parents” is toxic thinking. Sometimes, when an adoptive parent complains about the difficulties of raising a child, people may respond with, “You chose adoption. You have gone through such a long journey for this. Why are you frustrated with it?”
Guess what? They are human, and they are parents! I have come to appreciate how hard my mom worked (and is still working) to give me the best life she could. Parenting is hard, no matter the circumstances. Kids can be hard to work with, even though parents will never stop loving them.
Birth parents are often met with the same mentality. People question why they are upset because it was their choice to place their child for adoption. Sometimes, people even question a birth parent who seems happy after the adoption has been finalized. This can either make birth parents feel guilty for going through with the adoption or make them feel guilty for feeling confident in their decision—or both. Choosing to place their child for adoption will always be painful, but they need to be allowed to move on. If people constantly chastise them over what they could or could not do, and the reasons they did something, people are only hurting them, and I am sure no one wants to do that. Birth parents are just as deserving of a good life as anyone else is, and if that good life means giving their child a home they believe would be better for the child, then allow them to do so without giving them the guilt trip. A lot of hard, painful decisions had to be considered and pondered on for months or maybe even years to get to this point, so if they are content with where their journey brought them, let that moment bring them enjoyment. Even if it does not bring them enjoyment, and they are distressed, then simply show them kindness and understanding. It may be one, or the other, or a mix of both emotions. We are complex, multifaceted individuals whose stories should be allowed to be told without judgment or guilt. Being a parent is a full-time job on its own, and just like with the other stigmas and stereotypes I mentioned above, we need to set this notion aside and show sympathy to all the birth and adoptive parents.
Something else that tends to spark controversy in the adoption community (as well as outside of it) is the concept that because adoption may have been someone’s option after she previously tried to become pregnant, it is inherently the “second best” choice. This is not true, not even a little bit. It may or may not be the best-fitting choice, depending on your familial circumstances, but that does not mean adoption is automatically the “worser” of the options. Take it from someone I know well: “…and it’s not second best—it’s first best!”
I truly cannot believe that this stigma has leached itself into some people’s minds. There are plenty of families who decide to adopt without complications in becoming pregnant, who simply prefer adoption. Some people specifically feel a calling to adopt from another country because of a mission trip or some other event that sparked that in them. Adoption also opens the door to single parents and nonheteronormative couples who want to start families of their own (albeit different states and countries have the current right to overrule that and deny them placement). We really should work on minimizing negative stereotypes like this; it is unhealthy for everyone, including young children. Think what might happen if a child who was adopted heard someone say, “Adoption is the second-best choice?” Even kids who are not adopted, if they are told this, might grow to believe that adopted kids around them are “second.” I remember a few run-ins with this stigma during elementary school, and it stung like lemon juice in a papercut. However, I will say that it led me to one of my favorite poems:
“Yes, I’m adopted.
My folks were not blessed
With me in the usual way.
But they picked me,
They chose me
From all the rest,
Which is lots more than most kids can say.”
― Shel Silverstein, Every Thing on It
Everybody is human, and every human is taught certain mindsets of what is okay to talk about and what is not okay to talk about. Although, this does not mean we cannot improve as a community. By allowing fears and pain to be plainly discussed, showing empathy and respect, and by being aware of what stigmas are out there, we can break down the walls surrounding taboo subjects in the adoption community.
Mahli Rupp was adopted at 9 months old. She is an avid reader who loves to write and attempt other arts such as drawing, painting, and singing. She is almost always willing to share her experiences in adoption and answer questions whenever she can. Mahli will begin college as an English major and hopes to use her writing skills in whatever path her life brings. When she isn’t huddled in her bedroom with a good book or movie, you can find her hanging out with friends or in a bookstore.